Jim Kent:

"Human change initiatives must work at social, economic, and ecological levels if they are to succeed."

Posts Tagged ‘Democracy’

Our National Public Lands and Citizen-Based Ecological Stewardship

Posted by Jim on September 1, 2009

Even though this discussion focuses on our national public lands, it is also a story about discovering deep democracy – the type of democracy that might be able to better address this troubling and potentially dangerous period of transitions we are in.  Health care, immigration, war, economic equity, incarceration, and the need for global collaboration are but a few issues we must face as we go forward.  In a very real sense, the proposals about the advancement of democracy, in this case, by using the public lands, their institutions, and many diverse interests as the players, experimenters, and creators of change are universally applicable. What we might learn could be a basic discovery of how to successfully address change in other transitional areas without destroying our society.

An autocratic top down approach to issues surrounding use of our public lands is exactly the wrong approach in this era of post millennium materialism.  There is a growing citizen movement oriented to a bottoms up approach to ecological decision making referred to by Gary McVicker, Rich Whitley, Gary Severson and Jim Kent as “community-based ecological stewardship”.  Such a movement will satisfy the diversity that we find among communities in their relationship to the surrounding public lands.  However  such a recognition remains a threat to the so called top down efficiency that looks good on first blush, but robs the communities from working out their own solutions.  During my “Social Responsive Management” days with the US Forest Service we got to the point where the District Ranger would set out “criteria” of what they wanted within the many land use categories.  Once the criteria was set the individuals, communities, users and vested interest groups would propose to the USFS how they would satisfy that criteria.  Thus began citizen-based ecological stewardship and public partnerships and collaborative action. (see www.jkagroup.com, Publications, “Mack and the Boys as Consultants” for the story of how Minturn, Colorado became the first in the nation to come into a public partnership with the USFS after the passage of NEPA in 1969.) Use of criteria on issues indeed created Socially Responsive Management since the government was operating in a facilitative/ responsive mode rather than an autocratic/regulatory mode.  It changed the entire landscape upon which USFS decisions were made for the next 15 years (1976 to 1990s) since the process was built into the Forest Plans. (A Bio-social Ecosystem Map, or Human Geographic Map of the Western U.S. grew of this  early work.  These are the social/cultural/physical/biological decision making boundaries that people use in their everyday lives.  These are natural (related to place) not artificial (administrative) boundaries.)

As Gary McVicker states in his new paper: The Trend Toward Ecological Stewardship,  “The system that we currently use for managing the public lands was not designed to support citizen stewardship, it is basically antithetical to it.  Stewardship must arise out of the social and cultural systems  associated with the public lands. These function through word of mouth, social norms and caretaking. Conversely, government works through law, policy, and jurisdiction.  Social/cultural networks are horizontal in structure; government is vertical. Neither system is right or wrong; they are simply different. The proper conduct of each is essential to democracy–or what we refer to as advancing the heart and soul of community.”

So we are up against the brut use of centralized power to further the so called protection of public lands–get protection from Washington or the courts.  Nothing changes in that scenario.  Citizens are still victims of centralized, vested interest decision making.   For the idea of community-based stewardship to work, these two systems, the informal and the formal,  must come together in a manner that not only benefits the local interest, but the national interest as well.  To date the agencies charged with managing the public lands have sought to do that through citizen input into issues selected by the agency prior to their making major decisions. This kind of public participation is not designed to promote stewardship, but merely rubber stamp what the agency wanted to do all along.   Once made, these decisions are implemented primarily by the agencies and not the citizens. The pursuit of stewardship must be a distinctly different process. It must empower people to become well-informed, responsible environmental stewards themselves and carry the burden of ecological land management that insures their and the lands sustainable future.

Fundamental changes in how we make decisions about our public lands is needed. The Obama administration should be very interested in a citizen-based stewardship collaborative approach to resolving these national land use issues.  It matters greatly to people in our communities, when decisions are continually pushed down from the top.  Ideological groups, understanding this top down approach, know how to  impose the agenda on citizens, rather than creating room at the bottom for citizens to figure out the best management practices.  Each community and their relationship to public lands is different.  The informal networks are unique to the geographic space, relationships with land are special.  Also the community archetypes of: caretakers, communicators, story tellers, bridgers, historians, authenticators, opportunists and gatekeepers, are unique to the cultural descriptors of settlement patterns, work routines, recreation activities, and the human geographic boundaries. All of this must be accounted for in how we proceed on this issue.

The trend toward community-based stewardship may very well signal the beginning of a new era in public land management, one that could help resolve many concerns over the human interface with nature, and ultimately lead to more efficient and less divisive forms of governance and citizen interaction—an outcome that might well serve many other areas of national discourse.

This community-based stewardship trend appears to have far greater implications than just public land management.  It may be forecasting a shift from the industrial era of consumption to a new ecological age oriented toward sustaining the human endeavor in harmony with nature.  Indeed, it could be the beginnings of a movement away from hierarchical systems of control to one in which people become more empowered, and the traditions, beliefs and very heart and soul of community are enhanced and restored, forming a new foundation for government to interact with and support its citizens.

Documentarian Ken Burns is releasing a unique and insightful documentary on our National Parks in September.  It is my understanding that one area he focuses on is the contribution made by the National Park system to our society’s physical and mental health.  Affording a sense of place with nature, the beauty and tranquility of our National Parks help us to internalize physical, biological, cultural space, bringing a sense of harmony within ourselves. We suggest that the same can be said of the other public lands, particularly for people living in close proximity to them. As a nation, we need to recognize, honor, and restore this inherent connection of people to the land. But the connection now requires a deeper understanding of nature, not just a utilitarian view toward it. To get there, a rich dialogue among people and institutions will be needed, not through the dictates of government, but through the empowerment of choice, with government serving mostly as facilitator and provider of reliable information. This is essentially the concept of citizen-based ecological stewardship.

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